Why does sustainable local food cost more than conventional?

It costs more to produce food that’s tasty, healthy, safe, humanely raised, eco-friendly and that provides the farmer with a living wage.
Photo: Irene Knightley (via Flickr)

Why do we pay more* for food that’s grown sustainably – that is, closer to home, and produced using organic methods – than we do for conventional supermarket fare?

After all, some argue, if you buy an organically grown tomato or naturally raised chicken direct from a local producer, it hasn’t been shipped from hundreds of miles away. There’s no retailer in the middle to mark up the price. And the farmer you bought from didn’t have to buy expensive “inputs”, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for crops. So why aren’t these savings passed on to consumers?

Food pricing is complicated, but here’s the short answer. Sustainable food costs more because it takes more labour and care to produce food that:

  • is tasty, healthy and safe
  • safeguards the environment
  • raises animals humanely
  • protects the farmer’s  health and pays him or her a living wage.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Sustainable farming: lots of labour, management and time   

Instead of depending on chemicals and mechanized systems, sustainable farmers rely on their own labour and on their knowledge of the land and the surrounding ecosystem.

For example, to build healthy soil with plenty of nutrients, sustainable farming practices involve crop rotations, planting cover crops, and using compost and green fertilizers to discourage weeds and produce healthier plants. Crop rotations are essential to restore soil structure, but by periodically removing areas of land from cultivation, they reduce the farmer’s income.

Sustainable farmers control weeds by hand  and with mechanical tilling, and keep pests in check by encouraging a variety of soil organisms, beneficial insects and birds. When pest populations get out of hand, they set up traps and barriers, or use insect predators.

By the same token, sustainable animal production means less mechanization, and much more human care following higher animal welfare standards. In addition, sustainable livestock farmers often raise heritage breeds, which tend to be hardier, healthier and tastier than those favoured by conventional producers, but take longer to reach maturity. As a result, the farmer incurs higher costs for feed, labour and overhead and can’t raise as many animals as quickly.

Supply and demand

The supply of sustainable food is growing, but for a variety of reasons (including soaring farmland prices that make it difficult for new farmers to get started), capacity falls short of consumer demand. This is compounded by the lack of sufficient infrastructure for storing, processing, and distributing these foods. 

The hidden costs of conventional food

Maybe the whole price discussion needs to be approached from another angle.  Industrial farming has kept production costs low, but it has added a range of long-term environmental and health costs that don’t make it onto our grocery bills. Some of these include:

  • contaminated air, water and soil from heavy use of fossil fuels and chemicals, and from the volumes of animal waste that factory-style farms produce
  • record levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other illnesses linked to the North American diet of hyper-processed foods
  • rising levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due in part to the routine use of antibiotics in industrial animal production
  • health risks to farmers from exposure to pesticides
  • a food system that makes it hard for small family farmers to earn a living from what they do.

Instead of asking why sustainable food is more expensive, maybe we should be asking why conventional food is artificially cheap.

*In this post, I’m just looking at the reasons behind the price difference, not at affordability. That said, sustainable food can’t be restricted to the well-to-do and we need strategies to make it accessible to everyone.

What’s most important to you in buying food: Price? Where it was grown or raised? Labels such as Certified Organic or Fair Trade?

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